If you had the chance to convey a message to a large group of young, eager, optimistic university graduates, what would you say to them? I had the honor of doing that last month as the commencement speaker at Dixie State University. Under the skilled leadership of President Biff Williams and his leadership team, admissions at Dixie State have grown from 1700 to more than 7700 in the past year. At the same time, the school has blossomed into a true academic experience for students.
Speaking at DSU’s commencement was a daunting experience. The last thing graduates want to do at their commencement is sit through a long, drawn-out, boring speech. I spent considerable time thinking about how to avoid being the obstacle between the graduates and their celebration plans.
The speech began with a vivid memory from my childhood. In 1960, I climbed up the steps of an old, rickety blue bus destined for two weeks of Girl Scout Camp at Cloud Rim, above Park City. I remember looking out of the open bus window, as the bus sputtered to make it up the steep inclines through Park City. It was a ghost town — one old wood-framed dilapidated house after another, and not a sign of life in the entire town. It even smelled weird; a combination of dust, oil and rotting wood. It was eerie and a little scary for a young girl. Sensing that many of the little girls felt the same way, the wise Girl Scout leader onboard began to lead the busload of young girls in a song. It’s a simple nursery song that goes like this:
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
The word “row” is an action verb. It suggests that a person does something; performs. Notice that the song really urges you to row. In fact, it repeats the action three times: row, row, row! And you’d better bring your oars. Bringing your oars means having sufficient preparation and skill sets that employers want and expect in a workforce: the ability to speak coherently to a group, the ability to write, the ability to solve problems and the ability to think creatively and critically. In our global marketplace, employers value workers that can find solutions and care about customers. They are looking for empathy, for relationship builders. They are looking for people who understand not only languages, but cultures. They want creators, not “cut and pasters.” And, employers are looking for a strong work ethic — workers who not only know how to row but who want to row.
The second part of the bar in the song: Row, row, row your boat. Not someone else rowing your boat. Not you rowing someone else’s boat. It means you rowing your own boat and everyone else doing their own rowing. Rowing your own boat means taking personal responsibility for your own decisions and actions.
The song continues: Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream. Two important things here: down the stream, allowing the current to be your ally, your friend. And, as you go gently down the stream of life, there will be boulders, sharp branches hanging over your boat, and rapids — sometimes raging rapids. Your stream will be unique to you. You will master these obstacles because you can, and because you are your own captain. After all, it’s your stream. Make it your friend. Ride gently with it. Quit fighting the current by trying to go upstream. Life does not come with a motor for your boat. Row it gently, down the stream.
Now the lighter part of the song: Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Gliding merrily down your stream of life is to embolden your soul with a positive outlook. Give others the benefit of the doubt. Forgive. Shun impulses to blame or to find offense in meaningless things. Be an engaged citizen that contributes and builds rather than criticizes and belittles. With both of your oars in the water, glide merrily down the stream.
The concluding phrase of the song is this: Life is but a dream. It is good to have dreams. But dreams need an action plan. University graduates have an obligation to transition from scholarship to leadership. With their new designation, graduates are now models and leaders. As one prepares to row, gently downstream, do it merrily and with a forward vision.
Speaking at commencement was a gift to me. A sea of young people wearing mortar boards and robes, anxious to tackle the world. It made me reflect. It rekindled the excitement and fulfillment of my own graduation. Although I am certain that few if any of the graduates will remember my words, I was fortunate to give my first commencement speech, to row a new boat down a new stream. Merrily.
Patricia W. Jones is CEO of the Women's Leadership Institute. She was a co-founder and president of Dan Jones & Associates. She served in both the Utah House and Senate for a total of 14 years, 12 of which were in Democratic leadership positions, being the first woman legislator to serve in leadership from either party.